As was announced at the beginning of this week, last night’s Old First Concerts (O1C) recital at Old First Church featured pianist Sarah Cahill, the new O1C artist-in-residence, presenting a program entitled A Piano Party for Terry Riley at 80. This was, indeed, a “birthday party;” and all but two of the selections Cahill performed amounted to “presents” in the form of new and recent works composed to honor Riley. (The actual date of Riley’s birth is June 24.) The opening and closing selections were by Riley himself, the first a very early piece from 1965 and the second a selection from the seventh book in Riley’s series of collections The Heaven Ladder, composed in 1994.
It is worth beginning by considering how Riley’s music framed the entire evening (which ran about fifteen minutes over the usual two-hour bill-of-fare). The San Francisco Tape Music Center was founded in 1962 by Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender, and Riley was one of the first composers involved there. He was particularly interested in tape loops, which then led to his working with different ways to combine small figures in instrumental settings. This led to his developing exercises based on such combinations for keyboard performance, eventually compiled as a series of keyboard studies. One page of these was submitted to John Cage for his Notations anthology. Cahill performed from three of these pages, apparently having been advised by Riley that she could combine figures from different pages.
Riley was working on these studies at the same time that he was working on “In C.” Both pieces have the same modular foundations and involve the idea of themes that emerge from the superposition of smaller units. However, while the studies serve to acquaint the ear with the sorts of sonorities that Riley was pursuing, they were also études, helping him to build up keyboard skills to achieve through solo performance (sometimes enhanced by electronic technology) effects similar to those realized through the group effort of “In C.”
This was thus the ideal way for Cahill to begin her program, introducing listeners to the earliest stages of the emergence of Riley’s particular approach to making music. Having not heard any of these studies previously, I cannot comment on how Cahill’s approach compared with others (even Riley’s). However, with that as a disclaimer, I can say that, within the framework of my own listening experiences, she certainly knew how to get things going by establishing a clear sense of the spirit behind Riley’s early work.
At the other end, she concluded with “Fandango on the Heaven Ladder,” which could be taken as a point of culmination built upon three decades of playing and writing music. The building blocks are still there, but the textures have become thicker and more diverse in their rhetorical stances. While other Heaven Ladder selections have a decidedly Hispanic flavor, in this case Riley seems more interested in the fandango as a repeated structure, without much attention to its Spanish origins. He also claims that a bit of Ludwig van Beethoven seeped into the score, but the textures are so lush that Beethoven’s presence is probably more evident only on the score pages.
Within this framework the “birthday presents” were “presented” through Cahill performing works by Evan Ziporyn, Dylan Mattingly, Pauline Oliveros, Danny Clay, Gyan Riley, Samuel Carl Adams, Elena Ruehr, and Christine Southworth. Some of these composers, such as Oliveros and Riley’s son Gyan, know Riley well. Others, like Mattingly, know him only by his work and the spirit behind that work. Thus, each of these eight selections amounted to a unique reflection on that spirit; and the diversity of those reflections turned out to be as fascinating as the spirit itself.
Indeed, that diversity was so great as to threaten cognitive overload for the attentive listener. Each of these pieces clearly deserves further programming, hopefully in settings where it can achieve more focused attention. Nevertheless, for all of that bulk, some decidedly salient memories have emerged.
The strongest may have come from Oliveros’ “A Trilling Piece for Terry,” which basically explores different acoustic approaches to producing trill effects. This is a “whole piano” composition, involving performance techniques beyond the keyboard to the interior strings and the exterior body. In many respects it seemed to be a Cage-like “activity” piece of exploration, for which Adams joined Cahill as a “fellow explorer.” In a similar manner, Adams’ own piece, “Shade Studies,” used electronic synthesis to both enhance and contrast certain distinctive properties of piano resonance that arise when all the dampers are lifted..
Other composers were more interested in Riley’s legacy for keyboard technique. Mattingly’s “YEAR” almost seemed to harness Riley’s approach to technique to earlier composers; and sections of his piece gave the effect of metaphorically viewing Olivier Messiaen through some alternative set of lenses. Ziporyn, on the other hand, was more interested in Riley’s rhythmic textures, to which he responded with some highly engaging textures of his own. That sense of rhythmic diversity could also be found in Clay’s “Circle Songs;” but Clay seemed more interested in transparency, rather than thick textures. In Ruehr’s case, “In C Too” took only the “In C” pulse as a point of departure for an alternative approach to thematic invention, a relatively brief new form of a keyboard study concluding with one coy nod to the first “In C” motif.
Yes, there was a danger that one could get overly saturated by so many unique voices all raised to honor Riley. However, what mattered most was that the spirit of honoring him was what prevailed. It was what made last night particularly exciting, even if memory cannot manage all of the details.